Matthew T. Mangino
June 17, 2015
This week, at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, President Barack Obama told an enthusiastic audience “all of us need redemption — justice and redemption go hand in hand.”
In his 45-minute speech, Obama outlined an ambitious agenda for criminal justice reform. Obama called for, among other things, reducing or eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences, outlawing the widespread use of solitary confinement and barring a criminal history from eliminating potential candidates for employment.
The speech came on the hills of a major criminal justice announcement by the Obama administration. Obama commuted the sentences of 46 federal inmates who had been incarcerated for committing low-level drug offenses.
More than 35,000 inmates have applied for commutation under a new initiative, which has been bogged down by the number of applications and the arduous review process.
Inmates and former offenders can apply for executive clemency — pardons and commutations — and these requests go through the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. The applications are vetted by a deputy attorney general before they are reviewed and ultimately decided on by the president.
According to the Washington Post, when a sentence is commuted, that does not mean that the person was innocent. A commutation stops a sentence before it has been completed. On the other hand, a pardon is different. When a president grants a pardon, it is also not a declaration of innocence, but the pardon does restore civil rights like voting, owning a gun, access to professional licenses and government entitlements.
The difference between a commutation and pardon is simple: Pardons are generally granted after someone already served their sentence, while commutations typically happen when someone is in prison or on parole.
Before this week, Obama had granted 43 commutations. With this week’s 46 commutations the President has now commuted more sentences than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences during his time in Office, according to the Post.
He has also commuted more sentences than his four immediate predecessors — Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
Obama has not fared so well with regard to pardons.
A ProPublica analysis of Justice Department statistics last fall found that Obama had granted pardons at a lower rate than presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton or George W. Bush had at the same point in their administrations.
Obama has pardoned only 64 people. President Harry S Truman pardoned 1,537 people. In fact, Truman pardoned his first prisoner eight days after taking office -- an office he assumed by the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not through an election. In contrast, according to the New York Times, Obama waited 682 days into his presidency before granting a pardon.
Obama is not to be blamed for clemency falling out of vogue. The demise of the pardon is a byproduct of being “tough on crime.” Draconian sentencing laws driven by the war on drugs, prisons bursting at the seams, and a never-ending parade of new laws criminalizing everything imaginable are also evidence of a system run amok.
Those tough-on-crime politicians haven’t completely disappeared. A group of 19 Republican lawmakers recently wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch accusing Obama of blatantly usurping congressional authority and using his pardon power for political purposes.
Obama appears to be in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma. Although his record with regard to clemency is spotty, redemption or forgiveness will take more work on both sides of the aisle. Obama has taken the first step, now lawmakers need to get to work if smart and meaningful reform is to succeed.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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